KARACHI: If fan following was a yardstick of greatness in cricket, Pakistan´s colourful all-rounder Shahid Afridi would probably be ranked his country´s greatest ever player.
Ever since he hit a 37-ball hundred in only his second one-day international — against Sri Lanka in Nairobi in 1996 — Afridi has been a cult figure in Pakistan.
His announcement last week that he was quitting one-day cricket after next year´s World Cup has left his millions of fans pondering: who to watch after him?
No cricketer in Pakistan has had the persona and the box office pull of the hyperactive, big-hitting Afridi, who filled stadiums throughout his career — and often emptied them when he was out.
The fervour for watching him bat was such that when he was dismissed first ball by an unknown Zimbabwe bowler in Peshawar a few days after his world record hundred, the crowd chanted: “Try ball, let Afridi bat again!”
Girls swooned for a glimpse of him and many wanted to marry him. In 2004 two women came in bridal dress to a ground and were only convinced to leave after meeting him face to face.
Afridi won hearts with his unorthodox, buccaneering style — ignoring the coaching manual to rely on swagger and raw talent.
– ´Unmatched popularity´ –
It was an approach tailor-made for TV and Afridi´s career coincided with the explosion of Pakistani media that followed General Pervez Musharraf´s liberalisation of the sector in 2002.
Pakistani cricket writer and historian Osman Samiuddin said the exposure meant Afridi´s popularity become virtually unmatched, in any era.
“He has played in the right age for sure, when a booming electronic media has made him a bigger public presence than previous stars such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis,” Samiuddin told AFP.
The Afridi effect can be seen in any street game in Pakistan, where millions of children copy his style — trying to smash every other ball out of the park.
Afridi´s superstardom on the field made him the face of Pakistan off it, and his likeness is plastered across billboards and TV ads everywhere in the country.
Even now, in the twilight of his career, Afridi advertises everything from shampoo, banking and skin cream to chewing gum, with a ubiquity surpassed perhaps only by Sachin Tendulkar in India.
“Afridi may not always be the star performer but he remains a star,” said Kamil Ahmed, who works for a top advertising agency in Karachi.
“His name can lift a product, especially those for young people, who are mad for him.”
– Critics silenced –
Afridi, now 34, has had ups and downs in his career but his support reached new heights when he became captain in 2010.
“I am lucky in the sense that people loved me more than anyone else,” Afridi told.
“It´s a great blessing and I always wanted to play for my country and for my fans.”
With age catching up and form sliding, Afridi´s fan following started to diminish two years ago.
He was dropped from the one-day side for the tour of India in December 2012 and then for the Champions Trophy a year later.
But in typical style, he won back hearts with a blistering 18-ball 34 against India to help Pakistan reach the final of the Asia Cup in March.
Two sixes off Ravichandran Ashwin in the last over against arch-rivals India silenced the critics.
“When Afridi wins a game in that manner it feels much more than just an ordinary win,” said Samiuddin, author of “The Unquiet Ones”, a new history of Pakistani cricket.
There are those who became exasperated with Afridi in recent years, seeing a player whose love for the spectacular often came at the expense of his teammates.
But Samiuddin says that for all his occasional failures, Afridi would be remembered as “a very very good limited overs player, among the greatest Pakistan has seen.
“He has changed the course of matches with his bowling many times and does so with his batting as well,” he said.
Despite bagging 391 wickets in 389 ODIs with his brisk leg-spin, Afridi agrees fans largely come to watch him bat.
“I know my contributions as a bowler count for little. They want sixes flying all the time from my bat and I always try to do that,” said Afridi, whose 342 sixes in 389 matches is a world record.
Whatever his performance at next year´s World Cup, it will be a long time before cricket sees another performer quite like Shahid Afridi.